(Moscow) – Russian law enforcement should promptly and effectively investigate a February 12, 2014 arson attack on a leading human rights activist in the Komi region and his family. Police refused to conduct a criminal investigation into the attack. That decision should be immediately reversed, and the perpetrators should be identified and held to account.
The attack was on Igor Sazhin, a prominent human rights defender in Syktyvkar, capital of Russia’s Komi region, 1,300 kilometers northeast of Moscow. Sazhin believes that local ultra-nationalists could be behind the attack after a member of an ultra-nationalist group was convicted on January 28 of an earlier attack on Sazhin. A security camera appears to show the fire being set.
“How can the police refuse to investigate a fire when there is every reason to believe it was an arson attack and it was even caught on a security camera?” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “When the police turn a blind eye to arson, it only emboldens the attackers and signals a green light for future attacks.”
A video camera in the hall of Sazhin’s apartment building recorded images of an unidentified man pouring some liquid over the rug next to the door of Sazhin’s apartment at about 9 p.m. on February 12 and setting the rug on fire. Sazhin’s wife was alerted by the smell of smoke and was able to put out the fire.
Sazhin filed a complaint with the police the next morning, and on February 14 police officials examined the scene. On February 16, however, Sazhin received a letter from the Syktyvkar city police department informing him the attack did not constitute a crime.
Sazhin told Human Rights Watch that he will appeal the police’s failure to investigate with the prosecutor’s office.
Law enforcement should seriously examine all possible theories behind the attack, including the possibility that ultra-nationalists may have been involved. Failure to respond to crimes by ultra-nationalist groups may constitute official tolerance of such acts and amount to collusion, Human Rights Watch said.
In May 2013, several members of Northern Frontier (Rubezh Severa), an ultra-nationalist organization, attacked a board meeting of Komi Human Rights Commission “Memorial,” a prominent local human rights group of which Sazhin is a founding member. The attackers disrupted the meeting and threw ketchup at the human rights defenders. One of the attackers repeatedly hit Sazhin on the head.
Following public outcry, the authorities prosecuted Sazhin’s attacker for battery. On January 28 a court sentenced him to a year and eight months in prison. Social network postings by Northern Frontier and their supporters indicate that they were angry about the court ruling.
Northern Frontier has been targeting human rights defenders in Syktyvkar for several years. They have posted to their website names and home addresses of leading local human rights defenders and their family members. In June 2013, during the government’s campaign to tarnish independent activists as spies and traitors, Northern Frontier pasted stickers with Uncle Sam cartoons and “Foreign agent lives here” slogans on the apartment doors of Sazhin and several other members of Komi Human Rights Commission “Memorial.” Despite numerous complaints by the activists, law enforcement authorities took no action.
“Russia has made repeated pledges to foster a normal working climate for human rights defenders,” Lokshina said. “Russia’s international partners need to remind Russia about its promise to human rights defenders.”